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Racism in Grand Rapids: The cyclical fight against systemic oppression

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Lisa Matthews with grandson

Taffy Dickerson

Racist policies and biases continue to impede neighbors in the Madison Square community who are trying to gain equitable access to economic opportunities and health care. In spite of this, residents are empowering one another to fight the systemic oppression they are faced with every day.
“If you don’t have that income, you can’t access basic needs. Your bills never stop, but your money does,” says Taffy Dickerson, an empowerment coach and administrative assistant at Seeds of Promise and a community advocate for Grand Rapids’ southeast neighborhoods.
 
What Dickerson is describing is survival within the shackles of poverty. With a median household income of $27,016 dollars and a per capita income of $13,935, according to data obtained from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University, and where 65.8 percent of renters are spending more than 30 percent of their income on costs of rent, southeast residents are consistently faced with having to make difficult decisions on what basic needs they will forego this month. Lisa Matthews, a 54-year-old resident of the Madison Square neighborhood and primary caretaker for her grandson, each month is having to choose between what bills she will be able to delay in order to cover other basic needs for herself and her grandson.
 
“We got to pick and choose whether we are going to feed our kids, or pay our bills, or pay for a babysitter. We shouldn’t have to do stuff like that in this community,” Matthews says. Matthews’ experience is representative of the county’s data: Black Americans make up the highest demographic of unemployment in Kent County, according to the 2015 report from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, “The High Cost of Disparities." A little more than 20 percent of black Americans are unemployed, compared to 6 percent of the white population and 10.1 percent of Latinx individuals.

In the Madison Square neighborhood, 67.8 percent of families are living below the 150 percent federal poverty level. This means that, in one-person households, an individual is making $17,820 or less, and in two-person households, the income is $24,030 or less. In these homes, families are having to rely on a small amount of income to cover the costs of housing and other basic needs, further contributing to the amount of stress faced by the southeast community.
 
“A lot of times people in this community don’t get the opportunity to figure out what kind of job field they want to go into,” Dickerson says of Madison Square. “They don’t have time to sit down and see what they want to do because they have to survive.”
 
For Dickerson, the opportunity to be able to choose one’s career path is a privilege with which many in the southeast community are not afforded. In the southeast community, where black Americans make up the largest demographic, 51 percent, and unemployment for this same group in Kent County is at  23.1 percent, surviving paycheck to paycheck is one of the greatest struggles with which many are faced.
 
One of the ways, Seeds of Promise is tackling unemployment in the community is through the Seeds Center for Urban Social Enterprise (SCUSE), which serves as the guiding platform to help empower the development of business opportunities for southeast neighbors. One of the center’s 2017 plans is to launch the P5 program, acronym standing for preparing prosperity-focused people for placement with partnering employers. The initiative will form partnerships with employers, and help support and equip employees to be prepared and successful. Dickerson believes the response of the community at large to the disparities faced by the southeast resident lies in providing access to economic opportunities without barriers. For Dickerson this means, providing the employee with training and licensing they can take with them to future employment opportunities, and livable wages to help with employee retention.

"I believe that when employers want something, they are intentional in getting what they want. If employers want qualified people, opportunities should be given before someone shows that they're qualified. Many individual biases exclude people form positions that they would otherwise excel in without employer biases" states Dickerson. 
 
In the 2012 Seeds of Promise Health, Wellness and Nutrition Team Survey, 88 percent of respondents identified job opportunities as the most important necessity to improve the health of the Madison Square neighborhood. The health study analyzing 114 neighborhood responses was made possible through a partnership with nursing students from Grand Valley State University and the Browning Claytor Health Center
 
“Residents of this area are aware of the ways the stress incurred by employment instability affects the overall well being,” explains Ronald Jimmerson Sr., executive director and co-founder of Seeds of Promise. In other words, unemployment can lead to a lack of insurance and inability to meet basic needs, which then affects the levels of stress and overall health. In a community where 14.7 percent of black Americans under the age of 65 in Kent County are uninsured, per 2016 data gathered from the Grand Rapids African American Institute, the cyclical and intersections of poverty and health outcomes.

"Health insurance dont have to be utilized as much if the problems and stress that people deal with are alleviated through community support. Peace of mind makes a big difference in the well being of a person and family structure," Dickerson explains. 
 
Despite being among the fortunate in the community who are insured, Matthews does not feel empowered going to her primary care doctor when she has a health concern. 

"I have been mistreated in my doctor's office. They choose to judge me on the way that I look and where I live. They treat me like I am nothing. I am just your paycheck, and you don't listen to what I have to say," Matthew says. 

In a city were black babies are 2.9 times more likely to die before the age of one, it is an urgent matter for black residents of Grand Rapids to feel not only comfortable but also welcomed at their physicians’ offices.
 
“Every patient is different, and we need to be treated like individuals by our doctors,” Matthews says.
 
In the Madison Square neighborhood, residents who may be without insurance or are unable to afford the costs are welcome to receive services at the Browning Claytor Health Center. The clinic is located at the corner of Hall Street and Madison Avenue at 1246 Madison SE.  Another way community resources are being allocated to address the infant mortality among black Americans is through the work of Strong Beginnings, an organization in Grand Rapids working to address health disparities and mortality for infants. Since 2005, the organization has been able to help decrease the infant mortality rate of black babies. As of 2015, black babies were 2.9 times more likely to die than white babies, which is down from 5.2 times as of 2005, according to Strong Beginnings. 
 
Access to economic capital not only affects the kinds of health care each individual is able to receive, but also the kind of investment each resident is able to have in their own neighborhood. To help address these issues at the state level, Jimmerson believes the work needs to occur from the bottom up. “By allowing residents to have power and a platform, we can begin to make change,” states Jimmerson.
 
“When families don’t have the funds to be able to keep up with their homes, the homes slowly start deteriorating, negatively affecting the look of the community,” says Dickerson.
 
For many residents like Matthews, fixing up their homes means not having enough income left over to be able to pay for the month’s utility bills.
 
“When things in my house break down, I then have to spend my money in paying the bills or getting that fixed,” Matthews says. About a couple of months ago, Matthews had to spend a large portion of her monthly income to fix a plumbing issue in her home, resulting in her inability to cover the cost of the month’s gas and electricity bills.
 
In spite of the barriers, Matthews faces she sees her community in positive light and wants to use her voice and her resources to be able to help her neighbors out.
 
“I want to reach out to people in my neighborhood who become homeless not because they didn’t pay their rent but because they couldn’t get afford to pay their rent,” says Matthews.
 
One of the many ways Dickerson has been working to help residents is by accessing funding from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis and the Neighborhood Impact Program via a partnership with Northpointe Bank. Thanks to the hard work Dickerson has been doing to ensure residents understand the application process and are aware of all the requirements they need to meet to apply, three neighborhood homes were improves in 2015 with upgrades and renovations to their roofs, gutters, windows, and door, as well as a new furnace for one of the homes. 
 
Dickerson is passionate about educating, advocating and ultimately empowering her community to address the barriers they face.
 
“Because many people of color in our community have been told to stay in a certain space, it can be very hard to take the power back and advocate. So I help them come up with a strategy through a conversation which allows them to see more clearly the choices they have available to them,” explains Dickerson.
 
 “People here need to be able to tell our own stories,” says Matthews.
 On The Ground GR
 
On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the southeast end between Wealthy Street, Cottage Grove, 131 and Madison Square.
 
Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.
 
You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
 
On The Ground GR is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization working to guarantee livability of all children.
 
Photography by Dreams by Bella
 
 
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